People frequently ask us how to generate ideas for IELTS writing task 2. This is a great question, because getting writer’s block in IELTS is definitely something you want to avoid. The most important thing to bear in mind is that any ideas you put into writing will not be judged as right or wrong. This is especially true for task 2 essays. Another fact that you should be aware of is that you don’t need a large number of ideas to make a good essay. In fact, it’s better to develop a small number of arguments fully and coherently, rather than writing a list of arguments that you leave under-developed.
There are some strategies that you can follow to help you if you get a topic that you really struggle to write about. Many of our students have used them and they’ve helped them in situations where they had to write a topic they couldn’t relate to. In this post we will discuss a few of them.
1. Identify the Question Type
Task Achievement is one of the assessment criteria for IELTS writing. It’s very important to satisfy this element of the rubric to get a high score for your essay. Identifying the type of question you have been given is essential. The first step you should take is to answer the question: What kind of essay are you being asked to write? This should be your first step in planning your essay and it can be clarifying for you as the writer. It might even stimulate ideas in and of itself. This is because, by focusing on the precise meaning of the question, you might see something you would have missed if you had just given it a cursory read.
For example, you might have no particular feelings about online learning. You might even think it’s a boring or uninteresting topic. At this point, you might despair: What am I going to write? But if you then notice that the question is asking you to discuss why online learning is popular, this could help you, because now you don’t need to actually have a personal opinion on whether online learning is good or bad. You just have to describe the factors that have made other people favour it. This is an entirely different proposition, and perhaps an easier one.
IELTS Task 2 Question Types
Your IELTS Writing Task 2 question will always concern a topic of general interest. Some common areas are environmental issues, globalisation, social policy, the role of the government and education. In the broadest terms, the essay could be:
- opinion: the giveaway for this question type is that it will usually include something like: “give your opinion”
- discussion: “to what extend do you agree?”
- problem/solution: “why does this happen and how could it be solved?”
- advantage/disadvantage: “what are the advantages and disadvantages?”
- two part question: “what causes this? How does it affect people?”
2. Make a Negative Statement
If you have identified the question type and you still aren’t sure what to say, try to formulate an idea with which you would strongly disagree. It’s sometimes easier to articulate an opposing view. We have had a great deal of success helping writing students by getting them to do this. This can help you to clarify or discover your own thoughts on a topic. At the very least it will give you a starting point to argue against. And once you have that starting point, you’re closer to generating ideas for your IELTS essay. Let’s imagine that we have the following question:
Some people feel that the government should patronise musicians and other artists. Other people feel that this money should be spent on infrastructure and social problems instead. Consider both point of view and give your own opinion.
As we can see, the question is an opinion type question. But imagine that this is a topic that you simply don’t care about. The problem is clear: you have to given an opinion, but you don’t really have one. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Let’s reframe the issue more starkly to see if we can get a reaction out of you. Perhaps the relationship between the music industry and the government isn’t something that interests you at all. But you might have a strong reaction to the idea of musicians receiving tax money when there are other things you think the government should be spending money on.
Simplifying the Issue
You can reduce it to a very simplistic question: who needs state funds more? Musicians or the homeless? Of course, this question is not the one we were asked, so we won’t answer it in the essay, but if you react strongly to it, you at least have a starting point. If you answer that homeless people definitely need the money more than musicians, you should go with the view that money should go to infrastructure and social problems. Making issues more stark and “black and white” can be an effective way to generate ideas for IELTS writing. Just remember to return to the question and make sure your answer is broad enough to be a meaningful one.
3. Imagine Someone Else’s Response
If you’ve tried the first two steps and you are still at a loss, try this one. Try is to imagine asking this question to someone you know. For example, you might not have given much thought to the issue of a mandatory retirement age. Perhaps you are many years away from retirement age. On the other hand, you might think the issue is just too complex to permit a clear answer either way. Both of these are problematic: the first scenario is dangerous because you might panic and feel out of your depth. The second scenario also carries risk, because you if are too subtle and nuanced, you will receive a penalty for not being clear.
For both of them, though, you can solve the problem by going outside yourself. You might be able to think of what your elderly relative would say about the subject of mandatory retirement. Because of his or her age, the opinion might be more decisive than your own. Within this frame, you can now argue as if you were that person. Remember, it’s not important that you remain true to yourself. You simply have to produce a clear and coherent piece of writing in response to the question.
4. Play Devil’s Advocate
If you are only able to come up with one thought, play Devil’s Advocate with yourself. Imagine how someone who disagrees with you would oppose your idea. You can develop an entire paragraph out of this counter argument. Whether or not this is appropriate will depend on the question type, of course. This will work best for essays that explicitly demand that you consider both sides of an issue and offer your own opinion. It will also work well for essays with “advantages and disadvantages” in the question brief. Of course, it’s not appropriate for a problem/solution essay, because these essays don’t call for direct argumentation. However, even for a problem/solution essay, putting yourself in the role of an opponent can help you to clarify, justify or extend your own argument. As they say, iron sharpens iron.
5. Remember the Educated non-Expert
Speaking of the problem and solution essay type, we need to remind ourselves about our audience for IELTS writing. All writing involves two fundamental players: the writer and the reader. An effective writer knows his or her reader(s) well enough to calibrate the writing to meet the needs of that audience. For example, as I write this blog article, I am mindful of you, the reader. You are an educated person, who uses English at a level that is high enough for you to be considering taking the IELTS exam. But you are probably not a linguist. And you are not an expert on IELTS, or language proficiency testing in general. Most likely, you are reading this because you need to know how to generate ideas for IELTS. So I’m trying to communicate with you in a way that allows you to grasp important concepts, using what we share (educated users of English) as a background.
The best way to think of the lens through which the examiner receives your writing is: “educated non-expert”. Let’s imagine you get an essay question that deals with a subject that is far outside your area of expertise. Professional people are especially prone to panic at this point. They tend to associate generating ideas for IELTS with planning a professional document. How can I write about something that I have no knowledge or training to deal with? Well, let’s try:
The world’s oceans are becoming more and more polluted. What are the causes of this? What can be done to improve the situation?
Now, unless you are a marine scientist, or a very interested amateur, the chances are that you don’t have oceanic waste data on hand. But remember: neither does the examiner. The topics you encounter will never require expert knowledge. In fact, if you do have expert knowledge, you might need to be careful that you don’t write in a jargon-heavy or rambling way. So for a topic like this one, simply ask yourself, directly, the two questions and record the first answer that comes to mind. Here are my quick answers:
- What causes pollution in the ocean? Modern industry, plastic usage
- What can be done to improve it? Incentivise research and minimise plastic
Now I have a structure. Once I complete my introduction, I will craft one paragraph outlining the causes I have chosen. In the next body paragraph I will discuss my two solutions. Now, I’m quite sure that some of my ideas would sound naive or unrealistic to an expert, but there is no expert in the room. You don’t have time to worry about this kind of thing. You just need to focus on expressing your ideas with enough clarity and variety to satisfy the rubric.
Idea Generation Tips
To sum up, we’ve discussed a few strategies you can use in a situation where you face a task 2 topic that you have difficulty with. The very first step you should take is to identify the question type. Once you’ve done that, ideas will probably come to the surface. If they don’t, try any of the following:
- Form a statement that you strongly disagree with
- Imagine someone else’s response, ideally someone you know well
- Argue with yourself
- Unburden yourself of anxiety by remembering who your audience is
As you can see, a lot goes into a crafting a successful task 2 essay. Generating ideas for IELTS writing is part of this complex picture. As you approach the exam, it’s important that your tutor or coach is able to challenge you to bring out the best in your writing. There really is no one-size-fits-all solution to any of these issues, so you should engage with people who can nudge you in the right direction. The process of preparing For IELTS, particularly the writing module, can be draining. You might feel embarrassed or uncertain about your writing, which is understandable. You’ll find all the information and support you need here.